Ukraine, Explained


If you were a foreign leader hostile to the United States — sitting in, say, Moscow or Beijing — how would you view the U.S. today?

You would know that it has conducted two largely failed wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, over the past 20 years and that many Americans have no interest in fighting another faraway conflict with a fuzzy connection to national security.

You would know that the U.S. itself can’t seem to decide how strongly it feels about democracy, with a former president and his allies around the country mimicking the playbook of autocrats willing to subvert election results.

And you would know that the U.S. is so politically polarized that many voters and members of Congress may not rally around a president even during a foreign crisis. Americans, after all, have reacted to the pandemic with division and anger, which has fueled widespread refusal to take lifesaving vaccines and continuing chaos in schools.

Given all of this, you might not be feeling especially intimidated by the U.S., even though it continues to have the world’s largest economy, most important currency and strongest military.

This background helps explain the tensions in both Ukraine and Taiwan. In each, an authoritarian power is making noises about invading a small nearby democracy, and the U.S. has issued stern warnings against any such action. The two authoritarian powers — Russia and China — may ultimately choose to stand down, at least temporarily. But their increasing aggression is a sign of their willingness to defy what their leaders see as a weakened U.S.

Today, I’m going to focus on Ukraine. President Biden and President Vladimir Putin of Russia spent two hours in a tense video call yesterday, focused largely on Ukraine. Russia recently moved troops toward the Ukrainian border, creating fears of an invasion.

Putin believes that Ukraine — a country of 44 million people that was previously part of the Soviet Union — should be subservient to Russia. The two countries share a 1,200-mile border as well as cultural and linguistic ties (which many Ukrainians think Putin exaggerates).

But instead of aligning itself with Russia, Ukraine has shifted toward the West, including the toppling of a Putin-backed leader in 2014. Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has pushed back against Russia’s attempts to expand its influence.

“Putin sees Ukraine developing into a de facto U.S. and NATO military outpost,” my colleague Michael Crowley, who covers the State Department, says.

Russia’s amassing of troops along Ukraine’s border is a signal that Putin will consider an invasion unless Ukraine backs away from the West. Russia already annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in a 2014 military operation, although much of the world does not acknowledge it as Russian territory.

Foreign aggression often gives political leaders a chance to rally nationalistic support at home, especially as a distraction from domestic problems. And Russia has domestic problems, like surging Covid-19 cases, slow-growing wages and rising prices. Last year, opposition groups held some of the largest anti-Putin marches in years.

Putin may also fear that his sway over Ukraine is weakening, both because of Zelensky’s resistance within Ukraine and because of Russian politics. Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations writes:

Not all members of Russia’s political establishment share Putin’s obsession with the country, or his passionate view that the Ukrainians and Russians are the same people. “Putin sees that the next generation may care less, so he has decided that he must create facts for them,” one Russian policy insider [said].

For years, Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian troops have fought skirmishes along Ukraine’s eastern border (the other hot spot, in addition to Crimea). The two sides exchanged fire from machine guns and grenade launchers yesterday. International diplomats worry the skirmishes could offer Putin a pretext for an invasion.

Russia’s tactics are not limited to force, either. It has waged a disinformation campaign, falsely labeling the 2014 revolution a fascist coup and launching cyberattacks against Ukraine’s government, military and power systems. These tactics, of course, also recall Putin’s interference in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump’s campaign — which Russia has falsely blamed on Ukraine.

In a recent Atlantic magazine story, Anne Applebaum explains how Putin and his allies are using disinformation to support an autocrat in Belarus as well. “They are seeking to entrench and solidify the autocratic world while undermining the democratic world,” Applebaum said in a recent NPR interview.

Even if Russian troops don’t invade, Putin could gain from the confrontation, by intimidating the U.S. and Western Europe into backing away from Ukraine.

Putin has rejected multilateral diplomacy on Ukraine, insisting on one-on-one conversations with the U.S. “He wants a Cold War-style treaty,” Anton Troianovski, The Times’s Moscow bureau chief, says. But Putin’s demands — including a pledge that NATO would stop military cooperation with Ukraine — are probably too big for Biden to meet.

More likely than a treaty is a continued mix of confrontation and diplomacy.

On its own, Ukraine’s military seems outmatched by Russia’s. And a full-scale U.S. military response seems doubtful, given a weariness of foreign wars that Biden and many American voters share.

But Biden still has options. The U.S. can increase its military support to Ukraine, which could make a potential invasion look bloodier and more costly for Russia. (The U.S. is pursuing a related strategy in Taiwan.)

Biden can also threaten sanctions on Russia, as he did on the call with Putin yesterday, according to Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser. “He told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures,” Sullivan told reporters. If Russia does attack Ukraine, Biden said that the U.S. would react more strongly than it did to the 2014 takeover of the Crimean Peninsula.

But sanctions might not be enough to deter Putin. As Applebaum has pointed out, autocracies have endured sanctions in recent years partly with economic aid from other autocracies, including China. It’s one of the realities of a world in which autocracy is on the rise.

For more: Five takeaways from the Biden-Putin call.

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